The humble defenders stopping Putin's Shahed drones from raining death on Kyiv

the humble defenders stopping putin's shahed drones from raining death on kyiv

Volunteers are taking part in the defence of Kyiv from Russia’s barrage of Iranian-made Shahed drones (Picture: Getty/AP/Reuters)

Working long shifts around the clock, they are the ordinary citizens who have taken up arms to prevent Vladimir Putin from raining death on Kyiv.

The team in camouflage gear who speak from their position at an undisclosed location in the city are far from the bloody fight with Russian forces in the east.

At ease on a night shift, the three volunteers don’t view themselves as heroes.

They are not even formally part of the military structure.

But without the mobile fire teams protecting civilians and critical infrastructure, the outcome for a city of more than three million people would be devastating under the waves of Iranian-made Shahed drones.

Never far from the trio’s thoughts are their loved ones in the line of fire.

‘Every night we spend, working, we know that we defend something or somebody, and it makes it worthwhile,’ says Andrii, one of the gunners who have taken on the life-or-death task.

The kamikaze drones are usually sent in ‘swarms’ to try and thwart Ukrainian air defences, including small arms, large calibre machine guns, portable anti-air missiles and electronic jamming devices.

In the early hours of the new year, Russia was reported to have launched a record 90 Shahed-type drones at Ukraine, according to Kyiv officials.

the humble defenders stopping putin's shahed drones from raining death on kyiv

The Kyiv anti-Shahed team speak about their work protecting Kyiv from the waves of Russian drone attacks. From left: Colonel Oleg Smorchkov, volunteer Andrii and volunteer Oleg Suknov (Picture:

The vast majority of the unmanned aerial vehicles, which follow different routes, night and day, are shot down, but the barrages keep coming as Moscow tries to ground down Ukrainian resolve.

When a drone slips through, the results can be devastating, as evidenced by a strike on an apartment block in the southern port of Odessa last weekend, which left three people dead.

Across the country, more than 7,700 Russian drones have been downed since the start of the full-scale invasion, according to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

In Kyiv the detachment, which is funded out of the members’ pockets and through donations, uses jeep-mounted machine guns and fixed positions after being alerted via local service channels.

While being described as ‘warriors’ by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the volunteers do not see their task as anything exceptional, even if their shield of fire preserves life and gives the capital a relative sense of normality.

‘We know what we’re doing and we’re not seeking recognition or appreciation, we know what we’re doing and what we’re doing it for,’ says team member Oleg Suknov.

The volunteers, who are part of a wider brigade of mobile firing teams ultimately answerable to the Territorial Defense Forces, have received recognition from the elite tiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, despite the unsung nature of their work.

‘Many of us communicate through different branches of the Army, the special forces, just like on a friendly basis,’ says Oleg.

’When they ask what we’re doing we’re humbly saying, “we’re trying to take Shaheds down”.

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‘And they reply immediately with a great respect.

‘On the one hand we feel that we could do something on the frontline but on the other hand, as these guys say, who else would do what you are doing?

‘I guess that’s us.’

the humble defenders stopping putin's shahed drones from raining death on kyiv

Police officers in Kyiv shoot at a Russian Shahed-136 drone in October 2022 (Picture: Reuters)

the humble defenders stopping putin's shahed drones from raining death on kyiv

People take shelter in a metro station during an air raid alarm in Kyiv (Picture: Reuters)

Andrii, 35, who asked to be known by his first name, is a former software engineer who volunteered for territorial defence on the first day of the war.

Many of the defenders had no prior military experience before the all-out attack.

Most are exempt from frontline service due to age or health reasons.

‘We have several units and we have shifts, of course it is difficult,’ says Oleg.

‘Most of us never did it before but within the last two years of this full-scale invasion we’ve had a lot of training and a lot of practise unfortunately.

‘On the one hand it’s difficult, on the other it’s automatic already.’

Colonel Oleg Smorchkov indicates that he is proud of his company’s work, with a 100% record of downing drones that have passed through their designated sector.

The men nod and smile when asked if their loved ones in the city are foremost in their minds as they guard the skies. Andrii is married and lived a comfortable life before the war, taking holidays which included touring art galleries and museums on a trip to London.

‘Obviously it’s a huge part of the motivation,’ he says of the team’s loved ones.

the humble defenders stopping putin's shahed drones from raining death on kyiv

People look at a fire after a missile strike in Kyiv on January 2, 2024 (Picture: Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty)

the humble defenders stopping putin's shahed drones from raining death on kyiv

An Iranian-made Shahed drone is sighted over Kyiv in October 2022 (Picture: Reuters)

The defenders spoke to on Sunday as Russia seized the initiative on the battlefield in the east and with the $60 billion US package of military aid for their homeland remaining in the balance.

Emboldened by the capture of the eastern city of Avdiivka, Russian security chief Dmitry Medvedev has signalled that Russian forces could make another attempt to capture the city of golden domes.

For now, Putin continues to try and grind the general population into submission by destroying civil infrastructure such as power plants in a brutal approach which has inflicted wholesale devastation on Ukrainian towns and cities including Mariupol and Bakhmut.

the humble defenders stopping putin's shahed drones from raining death on kyiv

Ukrainian air defence personnel ready their weapons near Kyiv on January 3, 2024 (Picture: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP)

the humble defenders stopping putin's shahed drones from raining death on kyiv

Ukrainian air defence intercepts a Shahed drone mid-air over Kyiv in May 2023 (Picture: AP)

The fact that the mobile firing team is self-funded to carry out such a critical task in Ukraine’s seat of power throws the need for Western support into sharp relief.

‘As to what happens with our country, it’s in the hands of God, our allies, and obviously our Army, because our Army is doing their best,’ Andrii says.

‘I want just to take a moment to thank the citizens of the United Kingdom because they have kept their promise to defend Ukraine that they signed when we gave up our nukes.

‘But right now you know the situation with the United States and aid. If it goes like this [with aid being withheld] the prospects are not really good.

‘I’d like to say something inspiring, something certain, but it does not depend on us in many ways.’

According to the Molfar open source intelligence agency, the drones are ‘cheap but deadly’, with Ukraine needing the latest air defence and other systems to guard the skies.

The mobile fire teams were nevertheless praised by Mr Zelenskyy at the start of the month, with the president saying 359 Shaheds had been shot down in 2023 to date.

the humble defenders stopping putin's shahed drones from raining death on kyiv

Ukrainian serviceman Sergiy (right) reportedly shot down a cruise missile using an M2 Browning machine gun during a Russian attack on Kyiv (Picture: Anatolii Stepanov/AFP)

the humble defenders stopping putin's shahed drones from raining death on kyiv

Smoke rises behind an apartment building damaged in a Shahed-type drone strike in Dnipro, Ukraine (Picture: Ukrainian Emergency Service via AP)

‘I thank every warrior who is on combat duty, saving our infrastructure and our people on a daily basis,’ he said. ‘The accuracy of our sky defenders, the work of the electronic warfare systems, and the support from each of our partners in terms of the sky shield literally save lives.’

Those shielded in Kyiv include three British military veterans at Inherent Risks, an insurance risk advisory firm, who slept outside on February 23 and 24 to mark the two-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion.

The fundraiser for UK and worldwide charity REACT Disaster Response’s work in Ukraine brought home the ‘vulnerabilities’ shared by millions of people living under the Russian attack.

‘Within 30 minutes of starting the sleep-out on the first night, the wind had picked up and it started raining, plummeting the wind chill temperature to -1°C,’ team member Dan Kaine says.

‘And then came the sound of air raid sirens.

‘It brought an instant realisation and appreciation of what individuals and families are faced with each night.

‘Being forced from their homes, in freezing temperatures, with no feeling of safety or security.’

Hundreds of drones and missiles were fired at Ukraine over the nights the risk and crisis experts slept rough with permission and, in a welcome surprise, assistance from armed city police to take on the fundraiser in a controlled area.

‘If only for a short time, it gave a very real insight of the vulnerabilities that Ukrainians face every single night,’ Dan says.

the humble defenders stopping putin's shahed drones from raining death on kyiv

Ukraine’s air defence crews are among the soldiers who are waiting for a critical package of US military aid (Picture: Kostya Liberov/ Libkos/Getty)

As Putin continues to bombard Russia’s neighbour, there is no sign of panic among the comrades gathered in the office, where a red light in the background is a sign of the ever-present threat outside.

Asked what it’s like gunning down one of Russia’s weapons of choice, the men shrug.

‘It’s easy,’ the commander smiles.

Andrii adds: ‘Our company has downed 12 units, everything that went through our zone of responsibility.’

As the Zoom call ends, the trio depart for duties at the start of a week when the barrage of drones and cruise missiles continues to be launched at Ukraine.

Whether their resolve will be matched by Western arms remains to be seen.

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